Press TV, the alternative voice?

Press TV, the alternative voice?

A former correspondent at Press TV says newsgathering tactics at Iran's English language network should be questioned.
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Jody Sabral on Press TV during an interview.

While a battle of words rages between Iran’s English language news channel Press TV and Britain’s broadcast regulator Ofcom, some left-wing liberals are up in arms against the possible ban describing it as the end of free speech in Britain.  But frankly, this fails to grasp the complexity of this particular case.

“The battle for free speech is definitely on,” wrote Patrick Henningsen for “It's an ominous sign,” said disappointed blogger ‘englandsfreedome’ on October 15. The blog writes on Ofcom’s announcement that it plans sanction Press TV because of an interview the network broadcast in June 2009, weeks after elections, with Maziar Bahari, an imprisoned Newsweek journalist.

On November 16, speaking of the intended ‘sanctions’, a source at Ofcom told me that the regulator is considering a possible fine or revoking Press TV’s license. While the Bahari interview was filmed under duress as a pretext, the blogger quotes a Wikileaks cable eluded to in the Guardian as proof of a political campaign against the channel. The cable says: “the foreign office told an American diplomat in 2010 that the government was exploring ways to limit the operations of … Press TV".

In May 2011, Ofcom upheld Bahari’s complaint that Press TV aired the interview filmed under force in Evin prison after Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. Bahari claims he was offered freedom rather than torture in exchange for the interview. Ofcom has since ruled that Press TV failed to get his consent and this “contributed to the overall unfairness to Mr Bahari in the item broadcast.” Filming and broadcasting an interview without consent, it said, “while he was in a sensitive situation and vulnerable state was an unwarranted infringement of Mr Bahari's privacy". Ofcom has yet to take the channel off Britain’s Sky TV.

Press TV has since accused the British broadcast regulator of coming under pressure from the Royal family, and claim that the channel's coverage of student protests in the UK annoyed the establishment.

Whichever side you believe, left-wing liberals in the UK who, like Press TV, are quite rightly against another military intervention in the Middle East, are overlooking a significant point in this debate. The standards by which Press TV gathers information and presents it are very different to, I imagine, their own benchmarks. Bahari’s case should act as a stark warning.

My lucky break

Like many print journalists looking for a lucky break into broadcast, I jumped at the chance to report on Turkey and joined the channel in 2007. As an accredited member of the press and Istanbul resident, I was fascinated by the relationship between Turkey and Iran. It was an exciting prospect to be part of a new world which challenged western news agencies’ agenda.  I was part of a group of professional journalists and we believed we could influence the channel in a positive way.

However, since the regional uprisings began, pro-democracy movements have been presented as a follow-on to the 1979 Islamic revolution on Press TV, and therefore an Islamic awakening – except of course Iran’s own protests. While it may be true that Islam will play a larger role in the region’s future politics, the regime is using this line as propaganda to promote its agenda. For example, I was asked “urgently” to cover anti-Bahrain regime protests in Istanbul, but told "forget it!" when suggesting coverage of anti-Syrian regime protests.

The call which ended my relationship with Press TV

My four-year relationship ended with Press TV on October 17, mainly because there has been a deliberate attempt to suppress information on the Syrian uprising. It's one thing to take a position on the news you report, but it's another to completely ignore a story of interest to the public. It's well known that Iran politically backs the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but I was shocked to learn of the extent to which Press TV could be used to propagate propaganda.

After months of ignoring the Syrian opposition, the day finally came when Press TV called me to cover something. As thousands of Syrian refugees poured into Turkey to escape the violence across the border, a newsroom producer called asking whether I could go to the refugee camps close to the Turkish-Syrian border. I asked the producer about Press TV's editorial position on the story. "We're not denying there is a crackdown going on in Syria but we believe Turkey is gun running into the country to create a Libyan-style civil war,” he said.

When I asked what our source was, he couldn't answer, and instead he replied: "Turkey will do anything to get into the EU." It was a laughable response and I obviously refused to go. The next day, to my horror, I watched as a young Turkish translator with no reporting experience appeared on TV covering one of the world's most critically watched news stories. This was incredibly irresponsible. The translator, who I had worked with before, had no background in journalism and was easily manipulated while live on air to fit with the narrative coming out of Tehran, which had evolved into a denial of AFP reports that Iranian snipers were firing on Syrian demonstrators. This report went out to millions of viewers. You have to ask, what kind of alternative information is this? 

“Take a moment to question the quality of that information.”

I have now come to realise instead of a newly launched news channel living up to its aspirations, Press TV is slowly being taken over by an ideology that merely defends a specific agenda. Experienced journalists with news training eventually come unstuck with editorial policy, a policy that can never be explained because it changes with Iranian politics, which can be quite schizophrenic. “We get a yes in Tehran, then when we return to Ankara, the yes becomes a no,” a spokesman from Turkey’s foreign ministry told a room full of journalists in Istanbul during the nuclear fuel swap negotiations in 2010.

During the 2009 presidential elections in Iran and the brutal crackdown that followed, I began writing under a pen name for an independent Turkish website A few days after these opinion pieces were published, stories based on sentiments and conversations with pro-opposition colleagues, my laptop was stolen from my house in Istanbul while I slept. Suspiciously, my expensive cameras and broadcast equipment were left behind.

I soon set about writing a novel Changing Borders, hoping to somehow make sense of what was going on.  The book, a portrait of Turkey, addresses lightly its relationship with Iran. It also touches on how Iran taps into Western liberals’ anti-intervention sentiment to garner support in the information war. I may once have thought along the same lines, I have to admit. This is an easy trap to fall into. Next time you blindly back an alternative voice such as Press TV because it suits your own political view, take a moment to question the quality of that information.

Jody Sabral is a broadcast journalist, filmmaker, and author.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DCMF.

Update: Ofcom said on November 30 it had slapped Iran's Press TV with a £100,000 ($156,000) fine and decided to give the channel 35 days to transfer the licence to its Tehran headquarters from its London office.

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